Born in Visakhapatnam, India, but raised in the city of Mangalore, Rev. Cyril Veliath came to Japan as a student in 1974. Now 74, he is currently a professor emeritus of Indian philosophy at Sophia University.
1. When you moved to Japan 46 years ago, did you get culture shock? Yes, I think with the language. Even though India has so many languages, when we travel to other parts of India we could usually figure things out with English or Hindi. In Japan, no other language seemed to work.
2. How did people treat you when you first came? Japanese people have been very kind to me. People can sometimes misunderstand them as being rude, but that is mainly due to the language gap.
3. What did your family in India think of your coming here? My mother had already died and my father was OK with me going wherever I liked. My brothers, all five of them, were very excited. At that time the U.S. was a popular destination for Indians to travel to and we didn’t know much about Japan as it wasn’t a popular destination. So, my family members were curious about my move to Japan, and they wanted to learn more about the country.
4. If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice before coming to Japan, what would it be? When I came, Japan was a highly advanced country and India was still a third-world country that was struggling. Many Indians, myself included, came to Japan with a bit of an inferiority complex. That was a mistake. As Indians we have plenty to be proud of, and if I had to go back in time I would come with that pride in the cultural richness of India, and not with a complex about the poverty in our country.
5. What has been the biggest challenge working in Japan? The biggest challenge has yet again been the language. Even after nearly 50 years I do not feel confident about my language skills.
6. When Japanese people think of India, what do you think they think of first? Nowadays, many people consider India a hi-tech country.
7. Have impressions about Indians changed since you’ve been here? In the 1970s, the subject of conversations people would have with me was limited to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and ancient Indian culture. And in those days, I used to wonder why no one spoke about modern India, rather than the India of thousands of years ago. People are now interested in Bollywood and Indian food — and we have Japanese curry in India!
8. What about India do you miss the most? I have so many friends and happy memories over there. I was lucky to visit India around six months ago, before this whole COVID-19 thing got serious, and I met my old friends. We recalled our school days, and the streets we used to walk are all changed now. The old India has disappeared. I miss that, too.
9. What do you like most about Japan? What I like most are the people of Japan.
10. What is your field of research? I did my doctoral research on Indian philosophy. The focus was on a theologian and Indian philosopher named Ramanujacharya. My students at Sophia University had a keen interest in the great Indian epic, “The Mahabharata.” I could not find a good English version of it, so I ended up writing my own book called “The Love Song.”
11. What is something that India can learn from Japan? Discipline. Indians are very intelligent, they just need a little more discipline. That would be good.
12. What is something that Japan can learn from India? A little more openness toward learning about different cultures and languages.
13. Who is a person in your field of study that most students should know about? I think more people should know about those Indians who had an impact on the world, like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Rabindranath Tagore.
14. What is the biggest challenge you face as a professor in Japan? Teaching in English was enjoyable because I didn’t have to worry about being misunderstood, but while teaching in Japanese, I’ve at times felt handicapped. My favorite subject is Indian mysticism, because it involves teaching about the various religions of India. I also enjoy teaching Indian myths and legends. Translating Indian myths and legends into Japanese has been a challenge, as the beauty of the context is often lost in translation.
15. What is the thing you love most about teaching in Japan? I love the curiosity about India that I find in my students.
16. What piece of advice would you give to students during the pandemic? The pandemic has hit people hard but we have to stay optimistic. Things could have been worse.
17. How do you reduce stress? Music helps me reduce stress. I like to listen to various types, such as Japanese, Indian, Western and classical. I also like to meditate.
18. How do you keep on top of your work? I like to read as much as I can and I like talking to people and keeping myself updated.
19. Other than Gandhi, who is one Indian that everyone should know about? Rabindranath Tagore is one of my favorites. He was a person who spanned two cultures. He was an Indian who spent a lot of time in England. He played an important role in reshaping Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art, with contextual modernism. He was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in literature for his “Gitanjali,” a collection of poems written by him.
20. If you hadn’t come to Japan all those years ago, where would you have gone instead? China. It has a long history and a beautiful culture.